Freedom in the Holy Spirit (a sermon on Galatians 5.1, 13-25)

Some of you here today are old enough to remember a song that began with these lines:

I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’ garden in the shade
He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been
In an octopus’ garden in the shade.

And then a bit later on in the song came these lines which sum up so much of what the sixties were all about:

We would be so happy, you and me,
With no one there to tell us what to do.

‘No one there to tell us what to do’! What a congenial line for our modern ideas about freedom. Slavery means having to do what someone else tells you. Freedom means being able to do exactly what you want. This was the idea that fired up the sixties generation. Cast off the restrains of the past! No one gets to define you except you! Make your own choices, follow your feelings, follow your heart.

Of course, that didn’t always go well for people, even in the sixties. Another very famous song from that era includes the line ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’ That songwriter was a little soured on the ideals of the counter-culture, I think! A lot of people who cast off all constraints and did whatever their instincts told them discovered after a while that instincts can make a pretty tyrannical slave-driver. People schooled in the ways of unbridled self-indulgence too often ended up in chronic substance abuse and addiction, and some of the wreckage from that is with us to this day.

So what actually is freedom? Freedom from what? Freedom forwhat? And how do we achieve it? What does the New Testament have to say about freedom, and how we can experience it?

To answer this question, I want to talk to you today about four words and what we mean by them. You can find them all in the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that we read this morning. The four words are ‘freedom’, ‘flesh’, ‘law’, and ‘Spirit’.

So let’s kick things off with the word ‘freedom’. In Galatians 5:1 Paul says, ‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’

Paul didn’t come up with this idea of Christian freedom by himself; he got it from the teaching of Jesus. In John chapter 8 Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (v.31). His hearers are confused; they’re descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves, so what can Jesus mean by “You will be made free”? Jesus explains:

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (vv.34-36).

So now we can see what we need to be set free from. Jesus wasn’t talking about a literal slavery with a human slave-owner. He was talking about the inner slavery we experience when we’re under the power of sin. Sin can exert a powerful control over us; we like to think we’re free, but along comes temptation, and with hardly any struggle at all, we give in to it. We get into the habitof giving in to it. Habits are like deep ruts worn in our brains, and every time we travel those ruts, we make them deeper. Once made, they’re very hard to break. Sin takes advantage of that, and it makes us slaves.

I need to say again that I’m not just talking about obvious, spectacular sins like murder or theft or adultery or anything like that. Sin is primarily selfishness or self-centredness. Instead of making God the centre of our lives, we claim that spot for ourselves. But the trouble is, we aren’t very good at ruling our own lives. We have the human propensity to mess things up. We spoil relationships, we spoil good intentions and shining dreams, we mess things up for others and for ourselves. Human history is a long, sad record of how good, well-meaning people screwed things up, for themselves and for others, over and over again.

The word Paul uses for this tendency is ‘the flesh.’ When he uses that phrase, he doesn’t mean what we mean today by the old-fashioned phrase ‘sins of the flesh’. That’s clear in the list he gives in our reading from Galatians; some of the sins he mentions are connected with the body, and they include sexual sins, but some of them are to do with our inner attitudes, too. The list is found in verses 19-21:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

It’s obvious that if we live lives like that, real human community is going to be impossible for us, because human community depends on a willingness to put others ahead of ourselves. And that’s why the Octopus’ Garden definition of freedom will never work. “We would be so happy, you and me, with no one there to tell us what to do.” Well, that sounds fine, but what if what I want to do infringes on the well-being of others? Human history gives us the answer to that question, and maybe our own history does, too. Lasting relationships can’t be built on a foundation of selfishness and self-centredness.

How do we respond to this? How can we be set free from the power of the flesh so we can experience true freedom? Jewish people in the time of Paul would have had a ready answer to that question: we’re set free by obedience to the Law of Moses, which was given by God on Mount Sinai to guide the life of his people.

The Law of Moses included not only the Ten Commandments and other moral laws, but also detailed instructions about how they were to worship God. They were to circumcise their sons as a sign that they were part of God’s people. They were to keep the sabbath day and do no work on it, and observe all the special holy days in the Jewish calendar. They were to stay away from unclean food—there was a great long list of all the foods considered ‘unclean’—and cook the clean food in specific ways, being especially careful not to eat meat with any blood in it. They were to offer all the prescribed sacrifices of animals and grains. And so the list went on.

In the time of Jesus some people had become very legalistic about this. The Pharisees believed that if all Israel obeyed the Law perfectly, God would reward them by sending the Messiah to set his people free. So they worked hard to strictly enforce the Law. And it is hard work! There are 613 commands in the Law of Moses; it’s hard enough to remember them all, let alone obey them!

Paul was convinced that this was a dead end. It wasn’t that the Law was a bad idea; it was just that the flesh was so powerful that it made it impossible for people to obey the Law perfectly. You and I have experienced this; we probably experience it every day. We start the day with good intentions, but it doesn’t take us long to mess up. No external Law can make us good; we need internal change for that to happen.

Today there are religious people who forget about that, and become legalists. Some of them are moral legalists: they try to live up to strict standards—usually about sex—and look down on others who don’t measure up. Actually, deep down inside they know they’re not measuring up too, and this terrifies them. Their idea of God is the angry schoolteacher with the big stick, standing over them, waiting to punish them for every single failure. God is a vindictive perfectionist.

Some religious people are ritual legalists. In Paul’s day they were sticklers for circumcision and keeping the sabbath and the food laws and observing all the prescribed rituals of Judaism. And today people can be obsessed with how exactly to follow the church year and the details of liturgy and worship, and neglect the more important parts of the teaching of Jesus.

Let’s step back for a minute. We’ve seen that freedom is what God made us for, but that freedom has been severely impacted by what Paul calls ‘the flesh’—our human propensity to mess things up. Some people try to address this issue through legalism: just give me some commandments to obey, and I’ll work hard, grit my teeth, pull myself up by my own collar, and make myself a better person! ‘Good luck with that!’ says Paul. ‘I tried that, and it didn’t work!’ So what’s the answer?

Paul does two things here: he clarifies the goal, and he tells us how to reach it.

In verses 13-14 he says, ‘For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ This is what we were designed for: to love one another, not just a feeling, but a decision to do good for others, to serve others, to be a blessing to others, whether we feel like it or not, whether they deserve it or not.

This is what we were designed for. A railway train is never more free than when it’s running on tracks. That’s what it was designed for, so in running on tracks it’s being true to its own nature. If the train had free will, it might get frustrated by this and decide to attempt to jump the tracks and run across a field. But as soon as it tried that, we know what would happen! A train wasn’t designed to run across a field. Freedom is doing what you were designed for, living in harmony with the nature God gave you.

So we will find true freedom by giving ourselves to others in love. But the flesh doesn’t like this. The flesh is selfish and self-centred, and we’ve discovered just how strong it is. How do we overcome it? Paul give us the answer: God helps us overcome the power of the flesh by giving us access to a greater power, the power of the Holy Spirit living in us. Look at verses 22-25:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the one who breathes God’s life into us. In John chapter 3 Jesus tells us that we are born again by water and by the Spirit. We can’t control the Spirit, Jesus says: the wind blows where it will, and that’s the way it is with the Spirit of God. But you can pray for the gift of the Spirit, and God loves to give that gift. On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit came on the church with power; Jesus called it being ‘baptized in the Holy Spirit’. The same experience appears several times in the pages of the book of Acts, and in his letters Paul encourages us to go on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit’. Jesus says, “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11.13)

So we need to pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and we then need to ‘live by the Spirit’. I actually love the way the NIV translates verse 25 of today’s reading: ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.’ And if we do that, the Holy Spirit will gradually grow in us the fruit of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (vv.22-23).

But he won’t do this by magic. He’ll do it in the school of hard knocks. Let me tell you how this works. You’re driving home from work, and you find yourself stuck in heavy traffic. The flesh gets upset; all those drivers are in my way! How dare they slow me down! So when we live by the flesh, we’re going to get angry and swear at them. We know the Law of Moses doesn’t approve, but the Law’s no help in restraining our bad temper.

So what do we do, as Spirit-filled Christians? We pray that God will fill us with the Holy Spirit and help us be patient, and then we fix our minds on God and take advantage of the opportunity for a bit of enforced leisure time! Maybe the Spirit whispers in our ear, “Hey, you’re always saying you don’t have enough time to pray. Well, you’ve got a few minutes here, and God’s listening!” And as we keep in step with the Spirit, day in and day out, we find the Spirit growing in us his fruit of patience. That’s how it works.

Today we baptize Malachi and Josephine, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will bring them to new birth in the family of God and mark them as God’s children. We pray that the Holy Spirit will fill them and help them grow as followers of Jesus. When they face struggles and difficulties, we pray that the Holy Spirit will guide them and help them become more like Jesus day by day. We pray that the Spirit will teach them that being a Christian isn’t just about obeying rules and hoping we’ve done enough to avoid God’s punishment. The Christian life is about having the breath of God in us, the Spirit of God, the power greater than ourselves and greater than the flesh. In John’s Gospel Jesus breathes on his disciples and says to them “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Today, we pray that he will breathe on Malachi and Josephine, not just now, but every day as they grow and learn to follow Jesus.

But what about us? Are we living in that freedom that Jesus promised us? This is the reason we became Christians. ‘For freedom Christ has set us free,’ says Paul in verse 1. So let’s pray every day for the Holy Spirit to fill us. Let’s turn to him for help when we struggle with our human propensity to mess things up. Let’s ask him to grow his fruit in us and then co-operate with him as he answers that prayer. And as we do this we’ll experience a growing sense of true freedom: not freedom to do whatever we want, but freedom to do what we were designed to do—to love God with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. May this be so for you and me as we keep in step with the Spirit.

Two by Steeleye Span

A couple of Steeleye Span tunes to wake you up on a Saturday morning! The first is a fiery instrumental, the second demonstrates conclusively (in my view) that vocally, this current lineup is one of the strongest in Steeleye’s fifty-year career.

Oh, and in my opinion Maddy Prior is the reigning queen of current English folk music!

Steeleye Span are currently touring their new album, ‘Est’d 1969‘. Their website is here.

Jesus Saves (a sermon on Luke 8.26-39)

One of the most beautiful titles given to Jesus in the Bible is ‘Saviour’. A ‘saviour’ is someone who saves us from something too powerful for us to control. We might think of a person in the grip of an addiction of some kind: perhaps an alcoholic or a drug addict. The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous says ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Step two goes on to say, ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ This illustrates for us what it means to have a saviour, a rescuer, a deliverer.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is the Saviour of all who call on him. He doesn’t differentiate between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich or poor. As Paul says in our epistle for today, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28) And today’s gospel reading is a powerful example of that.

Jesus and his disciples have just come through a storm on the lake. The disciples thought they were lost. Many of them were experienced fishermen, but even they were afraid as the waves rose and the winds howled and the water began to swamp the boat. They cried out to their Master for help, and then an amazing thing happened. He simply spoke a word of rebuke to the wind and the waves, and immediately the storm ceased, and there was a calm. The disciples were astounded: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (v.25). It’s as if God was giving the disciples a bit of preparation for what was about to happen. It’s as if God was reminding them that there was more to their Master than met the eye.

So now they land on the other shore, in Gentile territory; this is actually the only time in Luke’s gospel that a trip to Gentile territory is mentioned. As soon as Jesus steps out onto the land he’s met by someone we would probably have described as a madman. Luke describes him as ‘a man who had demons’. He’s totally naked, dirty and wild-looking, and he doesn’t live in a house, he lives in the local graveyard. Luke gives us a bit of his history in verse 29:

‘Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)

Henry Wansbrough describes the man like this:

He is exiled from all civilisation, living in the haunted abodes of the dead and not even properly dressed. His strength is daunting and uncontrollable, and as soon as he has broken his bonds he rushes off into the hideous desert, the eerie home of evil spirits. What makes it almost more tragic is that the attacks seem to have been periodic, presumably with periods of lucidity in between. It was only when the attacks came on that people would fetter him in an unsuccessful attempt to restrain him. But he always ended up in the wilds. Such periodic derangements to a friend whom one thinks one knows are easily ascribed to a powerful and evil spirit alien to himself.[1]

A feature of stories of unclean spirits in the gospels is that they always know the identity of Jesus. Humans don’t; some believe he is the Son of God, some believe he’s an imposter, many don’t know, at least not at first. But it seems the unclean spirits are in no doubt about the identity of their great enemy, and this is true here. As soon as he sees Jesus, the man screams out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” (v.28).

But Jesus is determined that the demon has to leave, and he’s already begun to command it to come out of the man. He asks the man his name, but it seems that the man is no longer in control of his personality. A voice from inside him shouts out ‘Legion!’—‘for many demons had entered him’, says Luke. A Roman legion has five thousand soldiers, so that was quite a horde of unclean spirits! They see a herd of pigs feeding on the steep hillside by the lake, and they beg Jesus not to send them straight back to the abyss, but let them go into the pigs. Jesus agrees, and immediately the entire herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and is drowned—a dramatic visual aid to convince the man that his old enemies are gone and vanquished forever.

But of course, we can’t expect the pig farmer to be pleased! The swineherds run off to town and tell everyone, and a great crowd comes out to see what’s going on. When they arrive they see a poignant scene.  No doubt the man is a well-known figure in the area, but he’s been completely transformed. Luke says he’s ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.’ (v.35). But the townspeople are afraid, and no doubt the owners of the pigs are angry, as we would have been if our property had been destroyed like that. They don’t rejoice over the man’s deliverance. No: they ask Jesus to leave them. They’re afraid of what might happen next if he hangs around!

What does Jesus do? Maybe they’re afraid that a man with that kind of power might force himself on them, but that’s not Jesus’ way. He gets into the boat, and the man who had been healed begs to be able to go with him. This is usually a request Jesus honours, but this is the only time in the gospels where he refuses: he’s got a more important plan for this man. “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, Luke says, ‘proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ (v.38).

Some modern readers of this story find the demonic element hard to take. Evil spirits aren’t part of our contemporary world view, and they give the story a kind of legendary feel. We would be more comfortable if this man was described as being mentally ill, in the grip of some sickness of the mind that has him hearing voices and shouting in a strange voice and exercising surprising feats of strength.

Other modern readers aren’t so sure. American psychiatrist Scott Peck, the famous author of a book called ‘The Road Less Travelled’, also wrote a book called ‘The People of the Lie’ in which he told some stories of his own encounters with what appeared to be evil forces, and how he had dealt with them. And Christians who minister in the developing world frequently tell stories of these sorts of ‘power encounters’ and what comes of them.

It all comes down to a question of our world view. Do we believe we live in a world that has unseen spiritual elements in it, elements that can act on people in our own dimension of reality? Well, obviously we do, because we believe in God, and God fits that description quite well! Do we then also believe in angels? It’s clear to me that many people today, Christian and non-Christians, do in fact believe in guardian angels, and they even have names for them and pray to them! Even if we don’t go this far, angel stories are part of our Christian scriptures—the angel who announces the conception of Jesus to Mary, for instance—and we don’t tend to be offended by those stories, even though we don’t fully understand them.

So if we grant that such creatures might exist, and if we remember that God seems to give free will to all his creatures, it’s not illogical to suppose that there may in fact be ‘fallen angels’: angelic beings who have chosen to rebel against God and work for evil purposes in the world. Certainly Jesus believed that and acted on that belief, and so did his early followers.

But even if we don’t believe that—even if we believe that Jesus and his disciples were people of their day with a pre-modern world view, and that this man was suffering from a particularly severe mental illness—that still doesn’t detract from the amazing miracle Jesus was able to perform. Psychiatrists spend years of therapy with people like this, and sometimes the improvements are only marginal. Jesus simply speaks a word of command, the evil forces leave the man, and almost immediately he’s dressed and in his right mind, sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus and begging to be allowed to follow him. Jesus is truly the Saviour of all, even the last, the least, and the lost!

So what does this story have to say to us today?

We began by reminding ourselves of the beautiful title given to Jesus in the gospels: ‘Saviour’. I say it’s a beautiful title, but sometimes we Anglicans are ambiguous about it. A ‘saviour’ is someone who saves people from forces or situations from which they couldn’t save themselves. But when we hear about people claiming that Jesus has ‘saved’ them, we sometimes get uncomfortable. “I’ve been saved,” they say, and they might even ask us, “Are you saved?”

Why does this make us uncomfortable? Maybe it’s because when they say “I’ve been saved,” what we hear them saying is “I’m better than you.” But if you think about it, that’s not what they’re saying at all. Imagine a person swimming out from a popular beach, going out too far and getting caught in a powerful current. Imagine a lifeguard going out to rescue them from this desperate situation.  ‘Desperate’ is exactly how the swimmer feels. She’s maybe even given up hope; she’s sure she’s going to drown. But then the lifeguard comes and brings her back to safety on the shore. She’s overwhelmed with gratitude; “Thank you for saving me,” she says. Is she claiming to be better than the others? Far from it; she’s been silly enough to get herself into a situation so dangerous that she was powerless to deliver herself from it! Only the skill of the lifeguard has saved her life.

We’re told in the New Testament that the cross of Jesus has brought the forgiveness of God into our lives. If God won’t forgive us our sins, we’re truly in a desperate situation, alienated from the only one who can give us the help and strength we need. And even in this day and age, many people believe that God can’t forgive them. Their sins and failures weigh heavily on them; they’ve tried to change, but the power doesn’t seem to be in them. I’m not talking about obvious things like murders and sexual assaults, although some people obviously are guilty of these things. I’m talking about our selfishness and self-centredness. We know it spoils our lives and the lives of people around us, and we try desperately to change it. But so often we fall back into the same destructive patterns of behaviour.

Can God forgive us? Can God give us strength greater than our own, so that the destructive forces in us can be cast out and drowned in the sea? Whether or not we literally believe in demons, we often use that word metaphorically, don’t we? We say of someone that ‘his demons got the better of him’, and we all know what that means.

The Gospel is Good News: it tells us that Jesus is the strong Son of God. By his cross he brings the forgiveness of God into our lives. Paul says ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting their sins against them.’ And if we’re reconciled to God, then the presence of God can be a present reality in our daily lives. God can breathe the Holy Spirit into us, and we can have access to a power greater than our own, rescuing us from those destructive patterns of behaviour, transforming us into people who love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and who love our neighbour as ourselves. And that’s a miracle, no less than the rescuing of the man with the legion of devils.

What’s our response to this story?

Some of us are afraid, like the townspeople. Jesus has only just arrived, and already he’s destroyed a herd of pigs! What’s next? What’s he going to demand of us? If we follow him, how much more meddling is he going to do? Is he going to tell us how to use our money, or how to vote in the next election, or how to treat the dodgy-looking characters we run into on Whyte Avenue?

This fear is very real, even to religious people. Many religious people are fine with religion as long as we’re in control of it! We like the Sunday service, but we also like knowing when it’s going to end, because, you know, we live busy lives, and God needs to stay within his boundaries and not break out! That’s the problem for these Gentiles in our story today. They were fine with the gods as long as they stayed at arms’ length! But Jesus was bringing God too close! And maybe you feel that way too. Maybe this story is getting too close to home for you.

The neighbours are afraid, but the man himself has been delivered. He’s clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, and the thing he wants more than anything else is just to go and be with Jesus. And maybe, a few months down the road, Jesus was glad to see him and hear about all the things God had been doing in his life since he was saved. But not right away. Right now the story is buzzing in the air, and the last thing Jesus needs to do is take the prime witness off the scene. Jesus and his disciples are being sent away, but the man is not. He can stay and tell the story, and who knows how many other lives will be changed as a result?

Let me close with three last points of application.

First, as I said at the beginning, Step One of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Do you sometimes feel powerless over some force within? You wish you could be different, but something’s got you chained. It might be a fear. It might be a destructive habit that’s hurting you and the other people in your life. Francis Spufford describes sin as ‘our human propensity to mess things up’ (he actually uses a far stronger word than ‘mess’!). Do you know about that? Would you like to be set free?

Second, do you believe that Jesus is in fact the Saviour, not just of the world, but of each individual in it, including you? Step Two of A.A. says ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ ‘A power greater than ourselves’—what a beautiful description of the Holy Spirit! Jesus promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who follow him, and the Spirit will get to work in our lives producing his beautiful fruit. Galatians says ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ (5.22-23) That’s what God can do in us, if we ask him to fill us with the Spirit, and if we then keep in step with the Spirit day by day. Are we ready to ask him?

Third, as you begin to experience this work of grace in your life, you will find yourself in a social situation that gives you opportunities to share your story. Jesus might not be welcome, priests and pastors might not be welcome, but you are! Yes, we’d love to go off with Jesus on retreat for a while, just to bask in his presence, and he may well allow us to do that. But he’s going to teach us and shape us on the road as well, in our ordinary lives, among our friends and colleagues. What’s our call? “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And what did the man do? He didn’t just talk about God; he sharpened the focus. ‘So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ (v.38).

Two weeks ago we heard Jesus saying, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1.8b). Witnesses tell what they have experienced. If you are a Christian, then the presence of Christ in your life is making a difference. That difference is your story. You don’t have to be delivered from a legion of devils. Your story might be as simple as the hope Jesus gives you that the future doesn’t have to be the carbon copy of the past. Whatever your story is, Jesus needs you to share it. That’s how his kingdom goes forward, one story at a time, one heart at a time.

[1]Henry Wansbrough: Luke (Daily Bible Commentary); Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers; 1998.

The Glory of God and the Glory of Humanity

A great philosopher was once attending an astronomy lecture on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The lecturer concluded with these words: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. The philosopher replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer!”

Humans are the astronomers. Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course we can’t know for sure, but it seems as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternal significance – in fact, a longing for God.

The writer of Psalm 8 felt this longing. I want to explore this psalm with you this morning under two headings: first, the glory of God, and second, the glory of Humanity.

First, then, the Glory of God. A popular book in the 1950s was called Your God is Too Small. Our ancient ancestors certainly had this problem. In the time of the Bible many people believed in local, territorial gods. The early Hebrew people probably thought of their god in that way; in fact, he’s often called ‘Yahweh the god of Israel’ in the Old Testament.

We have no right to look down on our ancestors for this, because I suspect many of us have small views of God as well. In Sunday School we were taught about God in simple ways, but often we still speak of God as if he were our personal assistant, dedicated to our well-being and pleasure—a sort of divine butler, who comes to us every morning and says ‘What can I do for you today?’—or a heavenly pharmacist who spends his time trying to find the right spiritual aspirin to take our pain away.

The author of Psalm 8 is not content with these puny views of God. Look at verses 1-2 in your pew Bibles.

O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

Our Book of Alternative Services psalter translates the first line ‘O Lord our governor’; the NRSV has ‘O LORD our Sovereign’, with the word ‘LORD’ written in block capitals. This is to alert us to the fact that the Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’. Actually, in Hebrew this first line combines two names for God: ‘Yahweh Adonai’.

‘Adonai’ is often used for God in the Old Testament. It’s the Hebrew word for ‘lord’, ‘master’, or ‘owner’. ‘Yahweh’ is the name God revealed to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. God had called Moses to go down to Egypt and tell the Hebrew slaves that he was going to set them free. Moses said, “If I tell them, ‘God’s going to set you free’, and they ask me, ‘Which god?’, what shall I say?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

‘I am’ in Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’, but it’s a very strange name, one that almost defies definition! “I am who I am! I will be who I will be! So don’t think you can tie me down or figure me out”. In later years the name was often wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’. Most modern translations use the word ‘LORD’ in capital letters.

So what does our poet have to say about ‘Yahweh Adonai’? Well, the first thing we see is his appeal to God’s creation as evidence of God’s glory.

‘You have set your glory above the heavens…
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (vv.1b, 3-4).

For many of the ancient people ‘the moon and the stars’ were gods themselves. Today, of course, we know what they are, and we also know all about the ‘vast expanse of interstellar space: galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.’ As people of faith in one Creator God, we don’t see these heavenly bodies as rival gods, but neither do we see them as random bits of rock and gas that appeared by chance out of nowhere. Our poet says they are ‘the work of God’s fingers’. In Psalm 33 the image shifts: ‘By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Psalm 33:6). Yahweh’s fingers, Yahweh’s mouth—we’re using images for God, of course, none of which are entirely adequate! But the point is clear: the vast, mighty heavens above our heads were all made by God.

Today, of course, we know far more about the wonders of creation than our poet did. We know about the enormous distances of space, and the enormous stretches of time too—over fourteen billion years since the universe came into being—approximately 4.5 billion years since our Earth was formed. We know about the wonder and mystery of DNA, and the intricacies of the human eye, and the instincts that guide birds for thousands of miles on their migrations. We see the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, the peaceful lakes. For us as believers, all of these things speak to us of God—of God’s wisdom, God’s creative power, God’s artistic skill, God’s love of outrageous colour combinations—have you looked at a sunset lately?—and God’s fondness for extravagant variety.

Glory be to God! God is the creator of all that exists; it was all planned and made by God, and God continues to love and care for it. Our poet sees the stars and planets as praising God, and the little children and infants on earth are joining in as well! We humans can never fully understand him—our minds aren’t big enough to take him in. St. Augustine is reputed to have said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!” As we try to describe God, we’re a bit like people looking up into the sky at the sun, our eyes screwed tight shut against the brilliant light, so we can’t see too well to be absolutely clear about what we’re looking at! But we can worshipour glorious God, and we can follow his instructionfor our lives, including the particular call he has given to us human beings as we try to live for his glory. And this leads us to the second part: the glory of humanity.

In Donald Coggan’s little book about the psalms he has this to say about Psalm 8:

‘In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe—telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him—there is a dreadful silence—no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life—‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4)—‘what am I?’

‘We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?’

You’ve probably felt this sometimes too—I know I have. I’ve felt it when I was hiking in the mountains. I’ve felt it when I was out on the barren lands of the Arctic, in the immense silence, looking up at the night sky. “Space is so huge, and I’m so small! O God, does my life really matter?’ Or, as verse 4 says, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

What are human beings? The Book of Genesis has an answer:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth”. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

What does it mean for humans to be created in the image of God? Well, exactly the same language is used in the fifth chapter of Genesis when Adam has a son of his own: ‘When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’ (Genesis 5:3). So the idea of the ‘image of God’ is a parental metaphor: we’re God’s kids! We parents understand this, because for good or ill, we often see ourselves in our kids. And we are God’s children! God the Creator has made many different kinds of creatures, but in the fullness of time it was all leading up to the arrival of his children: human beings, made in the image of their Father God.

Now one of the things about kids is this: they don’t just want to be helped or provided for. They want a role! They want to help, to contribute, to be valuable in the household! ‘I want to do it myself!’ And so the Psalm tells us that as a good parent, God doesn’t just care for human beings or provide for them; God also gives them a vital role to play.

What is that role? Part of the answer to that question is found in verses 5-8:

‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea’.

This is royal language – to ‘have dominion’. The one who really has dominion over the whole creation is the Creator God, but he chooses to share that dominion with his human children.

So what is it we’re called to do? Verses 6-8 talk about us being given ‘dominion over the works of God’s hands.’ Older generations tended to see this in terms of taming the earth and subduing it; human life was seen as a life of conflict with the forces of nature. Of course, there are times when we still feel that: when great forest fires rage, for instance, fires so fierce we call them ‘the Beast’! But nowadays we’re also aware of the awesome power of humans over our environment. We’re aware of the possibility that our activity may even be doing something that would have been unthinkable a century ago: changing the climate of the earth. We’re aware that we have created weapons so terrifying in their power that using them might well have lethal consequences, not just for us, but for our planet as well.

And so in our time we’ve begun to notice another strand of this Old Testament teaching. In Genesis 2:15 we read, ‘Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’. ‘To keep it’ has the old sense of ‘to guard it’. The Common English Bible has a wonderful translation: ‘to farm it and to take care of it’. God calls us human beings to be good stewards of the earth. And in our time, a time of climate change and massive extinctions of wildlife species, it’s become an urgent matter that we respond to this call.

This creation call to humankind has never been revoked. We are still placed on the earth to till it and to guard it. God our Creator took great care when he first made this home of ours, and he continues to take great care as life here continues to evolve and develop. If we are made in his image, sharing his dominion over his creation, can we do any less?

To sum up, then: what is it that makes our lives significant? We humans are frail, and short-lived in terms of the life of our planet. Why are we important? Why is your life important? Why is mine?

We’re important because we’re made in God’s image and created for relationship with God. It’s significant that in this psalm God is addressed throughout in the second person: ‘Yahweh our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ Many psalms speak about God in the third person—‘Come, let us sing to the Lord—but in this psalm we address God directly, because we’re called into relationship with God, as his beloved children.

This psalm calls us to reflect on the wonder and majesty of God. One of the best ways to do this is to get outside, into God’s natural creation. You’ve heard me say before that if we do all our praying indoors, we’ll end up thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. But if we get out into God’s creation regularly, we’ll learn a different view of God. We’ll walk there with the great Creator, and our hearts will be full of praise for him.

And of course, our lives are important because God has chosen to share his care for creation with us. He’s not going to do it without us. He’s not going to revoke our job description. His rule over creation is not the rule of a despot, a tyrant who exploits the world to feed his own self-centred greed. God rules and cares for his world with love, patience, and skill. And he calls us to learn to do that too.

So maybe, as we think about these things, the question we ought to ask ourselves is this: is God’s natural world a better place because of me? And if the answer is ‘no’, then we’ve got some thinking and praying to do. One day we’re going to be asked to give account for our stewardship. On that day, I don’t think, “I just did what everyone else was doing” will be an acceptable answer.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Today we join in the praise and worship offered to you by all created things. Today we thank you for making us in your image and calling us to be stewards of this wonderful, beautiful earth which you have made. Help us to care for it as you care for it, our God, that we may truly live our lives to your honour and glory. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

On Not Losing the Plot (a sermon on Luke 24.44-53)

Sometimes, churches can lose the plot. We can get caught up in doing the things we’ve always done—holding services and Sunday School, baptizing and marrying and burying people, holding Bible study groups, and trying desperately to raise enough money to pay for it—and we can lose sight of why we’re doing these things. What’s the church actually for? Why is it important that it exists? Why does God think it’s important? If we can’t find a compelling answer to that question, we probably won’t have much motivation for making sure the work of our church goes forward.

So we need to recover the plot—and today’s Gospel for Ascension Day will help us do that.

It’s interesting to note that if all we had was the Gospel of Luke, we’d assume Jesus’ resurrection and ascension took place on the same day! Luke begins chapter 24 with the women coming to the tomb on Easter morning and finding the body gone. Then he tells the story of two disciples walking to Emmaus on Sunday afternoon, and how Jesus came and walked along with them without them recognizing him. When they got to Emmaus and invited him for supper, he took bread, blessed it and broke it, and their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They ran back to Jerusalem to find the eleven apostles in the upper room, very excited because the risen Lord had apparently appeared to Simon Peter. And while they were still speaking with each other, Jesus appeared to them. “Peace be with you”, he said, and showed them his hands and feet. They couldn’t believe it, until he took a piece of broiled fish and ate it in their presence.

Then comes today’s gospel. Jesus explains to them how everything that has happened to him has been in fulfilment of the scriptures. He commissions them to be his witnesses and promises them the gift of the Holy Spirit to equip them for the task ahead of them. And then he leads them out to Bethany, blesses them, and is carried up to heaven. It seems like the whole forty days of Easter is compressed into a single day!

Did it actually all happen on a single day? Probably not. Luke also wrote the Book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church. The first chapter overlaps with Luke 24, and in Acts chapter one Luke tells us that ‘After his suffering (Jesus) presented himself alive to (his disciples) by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.’ (Acts 1:3) So Luke is well aware of the extended chronology of the Easter season. Nonetheless, in his Gospel he’s giving us the big picture, so he squeezes it all into a single twenty-four-hour period.

Let’s look closely at what Jesus says to his disciples in today’s gospel. First, he gives them an overview of what the past was really about. Look at verses 44-46:

‘Then (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.”’

Jesus joined together two strands of Old Testament prophecy that hadn’t been joined before. One strand was the idea that God was going to send a Messiah, a king like David, who would lead his people in battle, destroy their enemies, and set up God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth. The other strand was the idea of God’s Suffering Servant that we find in the second part of the Book of Isaiah. The Servant is a mysterious figure who will suffer because of his faithfulness to God, but in some strange way God will use his suffering to bring healing to his people. Isaiah says,

‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53:4-5)

Jesus says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer.” (v.46) Of course he is; that’s what the whole idea of God becoming a human being was all about. God’s world is now shot through with human suffering. Some of that suffering is caused by human sinfulness: war and injustice, cruelty and oppression, violence and selfishness and greed and prejudice. But some of it is caused by natural forces: earthquakes and diseases and other natural disasters.

How can God be a God of love and hold himself aloof from all this suffering? If he truly loves the world, surely he has to come into it and share in its sufferings. We humans don’t tend to trust people who shout advice to us from the safety of the command post. We trust leaders who know what it’s like to be in the trenches and have the scars to prove it. Jesus shows us a God like that.

Luke loves the fact that Jesus reaches out to suffering people. His gospel stories focus on Jesus’ care for the lepers and outcasts, Gentile soldiers and tax collectors, shepherds and children and women—people who were seen as being on a lower social level in his day. Those folks are often ‘despised and rejected’ by others, and ‘acquainted with grief.’ Jesus enters into their suffering. Like them, he’s despised and rejected by the leaders and the powerful people of his day. But he’s faithful to God in his suffering, even going so far as to forgive those who crucify him: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

And God is faithful to Jesus: he vindicates him by raising him from the dead, and our reading today ends with him ascending to heaven, the place of authority. In the Ascension he isn’t ‘going away and leaving us.’ He is being honoured by the Father as Lord of all. This is the big picture of Luke’s gospel: Jesus has come among us and lived out the love of God for all people, including the weak and the outcasts, the poor and the rejected. And in the end, love is stronger than death. The love of God wins the victory over death, and the risen Jesus, the Lord of love, is the true ruler of the world.

So what’s the church called to do? Follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We’re not called to separate ourselves from the sin and suffering and messiness of the world. We’re called to get involved in it, reaching out to all people, whether we like them or not, whether we think they deserve it or not. And we’re especially called to reach out to those who are rejected by others. We’re called to suffer with them, even die with them if need be, all the while reaching out in love and forgiveness to those who persecute us. And we’re called to trust that God will be faithful to us in our suffering; he won’t abandon us, but will raise us up with Jesus one day.

So Jesus gives his disciples an overview of what the past was really all about—what his life and suffering and death and resurrection really meant in terms of God’s love for all people. And we as a church need to ask ourselves: how are we fulfilling that mandate? How are we getting involved in the lives of ‘the last, the least, and the lost?’ How are we embracing the pain of the ones God loves, and bringing them a sense of the healing touch of God? How am I doing that? How are you doing it?

But Jesus also looks ahead and gives his disciples a sense of what the future is going to be all about. In verses 47-49 he says,

“…repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (the Messiah’s) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

They are witnesses. Witnesses have seen things. The disciples have seen God’s love at work in Jesus, reaching out to everyone—young and old, rich and poor, men and women, sick and healthy, worthy and unworthy. They’ve seen Jesus’ faithfulness and how it led him to the cross. They’ve seen him alive again. Now they’re called to spread that story. Why? Not because it’s a pretty story, but because it has the power to set people free from guilt and sin.

We live in a world that’s not very big on forgiveness. This is a ‘one strike you’re out’ kind of world. Social media is everywhere: if politicians make one mistake, they’re finished. We live in a highly competitive economy: if we don’t measure up, we’ll be fired and replaced. And we live in a world of perfectionistic relationships, where people are quite ready to replace us if we don’t live up to their expectations.

Some people think God’s like that, but Jesus wants them to know that God is quite different. Jesus talks about a father running to meet his prodigal son and welcoming him home, even after the son has rejected his father and wasted all his property. Jesus reaches out to guilty and unworthy people and assures them that God forgives them and welcomes them when they come home to him. He even goes so far as to forgive those who are murdering him—demonstrating by his actions that God is a God who loves even his enemies.

We’re often told that we live in a world which has lost its sense of guilt and sin. That may be true, but I’m absolutely sure that people in our world have not lost their sense of failure, of not measuring up to what’s expected of them. I know I haven’t lost that; have you? I suspect not.

How do you approach God if you’ve failed? Jesus wants to introduce people everywhere to a God who loves them as they are, failures and all—a God who reaches out to them and forgives them. And so ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (Jesus’) name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ (v.47) Proclaimed by who? By the church, of course. And who is the church? I am. You are. Everyone who follows Jesus and loves him is part of the church. This is the job Jesus has given us: not just to live his love, but to speak about it too. He doesn’t just say that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be demonstrated; it has to be ‘proclaimed’. Announced verbally, that is!

So again, we have to ask ourselves, how are we doing at fulfilling this mandate? Witnesses are people who tell others what they have seen and heard and experienced. What good news about Jesus have we experienced, that we would like to share with others? Who have we told about it?

Maybe you think “I know I should do that, but I don’t really know how, and I’m scared of getting it wrong.” Excellent! Then you’re in exactly the right place spiritually to become a better witness! I have two encouraging words for you.

The first is, you can learn to get better at it. It’s not a complicated thing, being a witness. Many people have done it before you. You don’t have to worry about offending people or putting your foot in your mouth. You don’t have to be scared that your friends will think you’re weird. You don’t have to go out onto street corners if that’s not the temperament God has given you. God can teach you to be a witness in a way that feels natural for you, in a way that fits the personality he has given you. If you’d like to learn more about that, please come and talk to me. Believe me, nothing would delight me more than to help you learn to enjoy being a witness for the Gospel of Jesus!

The second encouraging word is, you’re not alone. God has a gift for you. Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (vv.48-49) This is our theme for next Sunday: the coming of the Holy Spirit. Every follower of Jesus has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit is the one who connects us to God and fills us with the love and power of God. And when it comes to this work of being witnesses, the Spirit has a special role to play.

First, the Spirit goes before us, working in the hearts and minds of receptive people, preparing them to receive the good news of Jesus. We saw this two weeks ago in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit worked in the life of Cornelius, leading him to turn away from the worship of the old gods of Rome and turn to the one true God, the creator of the world. By the time Peter got to Cornelius, he was more than ready to hear about Jesus. And the Spirit still does that kind of thing today.

Second, the Spirit guides you and me. If we ask him to lead us, and then stay attentive to his voice, he will give us the nudges we need toward the people who are ready to find out more about the good news of Jesus. We saw that last week in our reading from Acts, when the Spirit guided Paul to Philippi, where Lydia was ready to hear the gospel message. Again, the Holy Spirit has not stopped doing this. I’ve had many experiences of being led to the right person at the right time, just when a word of witness was needed. If you ask, the Spirit will guide you.

So, brothers and sisters, let’s not lose the plot! We’re about following in Jesus’ footsteps as he reaches out to everyone with the love of God, especially the last, the least, and the lost. We’re called to do that naturally, as a part of our daily lives. We’re about being witnesses, sharing the good news that God forgives us and welcomes us into a loving relationship with him. We’re called to pass that invitation on to others so they can know God for themselves. And we’re not left alone to do this by ourselves; we’re not smart enough or strong enough for that! No, God wants to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and that includes us.

That’s the plot: that’s what church is all about. Now let’s make sure these things are front and centre in our life as a congregation, and in our own daily lives as well. Amen.